Backyard Woodland (Countryman Press, 2016) by Josh VanBrakle helps readers to care for and appreciate the woods in their backyard. As the first ever guide of its type for nurturing the land in Americans’ care, this book helps the 10 million Americans that own forestland to give it the attention and care it deserves. In this excerpt, he shares his six rules for protecting the land around you.
One of the most exciting—and frustrating—parts of working in forestry is that the science behind it is always changing. We’re always learning something new about woodlands, how they work, and how to care for them.
Not surprisingly, then, you’ll hear different recommendations about how to look after the land, depending on whom you talk to. Even as someone who works with forests every day, I have a hard time keeping all the ideas straight.
Regardless of the source, though, I’ve found the same overarching concepts seem to stick out. While the details vary, following these six rules will give you confidence that your actions, at least, are doing no harm to your woods.
Rule #1: Protect the Soil
When I say forest or woods, what image first comes to mind? Trees, most likely. But beneath all those trees is something even more important: the soil.
In the woods, everything starts with the soil. Soil stores the water and minerals that plants need to grow. Soil anchors trees to protect them from blowing over in storms. And when trees die, they decompose and return their nutrients to the soil, so new plants can grow. If you don’t have healthy soil, you won’t have a healthy woodland.
With few exceptions, you won’t be improving your woodland’s soil. It’s unnecessary—not to mention prohibitively expensive—to fertilize or add other elements to it.
Protecting your soil is about safeguarding what’s already there. The main way to do that is to keep soil from washing away through erosion.
There are lots of ways to reduce erosion on your land, and most of them have to do with actions you or your logger should take to keep your roads and trails intact.
Rule #2: Protect the Water
In general, if you’re protecting your soil, you’ll also protect your water. That’s because when soil washes away, it finds its way downhill and ultimately into streams, where it can foul the water and promote algae blooms. If you do what you can to limit erosion on your property, you’ll be keeping your streams, ponds, and wetlands clean at the same time.
Rule #3: Provide Diversity
Not all woodlands are the same. Some are old. Others are young. Some are cold and wet. Others are hot and dry. Some have evergreen trees. Others have trees that lose their leaves.
These variations matter because different plants and animals prefer different conditions. A woodland that’s great for eastern bluebirds will be poor for scarlet tanagers.
There are ways you can make your woods more attractive to the wildlife you want to see more of. Recognize, though, that there are wildlife winners and losers with almost any change you make. As strange as it sounds, even leaving the woods alone will harm some species.
To create homes for as many species as possible, variety is key. Avoid actions that simplify your woodland, and work instead to make your property more diverse.
Rule #4: Leave Something for the Future
We love instant gratification. We see murders solved in a one-hour episode. We answer questions in seconds with an Internet search. We send money around the world with a click.
Forests don’t operate on that scale. They change over decades, even centuries.
That’s why it’s so important to remember the future when taking action on your woodland. The trees you see today may have started when your grand- parents were kids. It took that long for the trees to turn into the grown-up forest you walk around in.
When you plan actions in your woods, don’t just think about this year or the next. Think about ten, twenty, a hundred years from now. What do you want your woods to look like then? What legacy will you leave for future generations who will own your land?
The last three chapters of this book delve into these long-term issues. They offer suggestions for actions you can take now to give your land its best possible chance for a happy, healthy future.
Rule #5: Keep the Land Intact
I grew up in central Pennsylvania, about an hour and a half west of Philadelphia. Back then, the area was mostly farm fields and woods with some small towns and cities.
When I visit my family there now, I’m stunned by how much the landscape has changed in my few short decades on this planet. Townhomes stand where corn and trees once did. Dogs and cats roam around, rather than cows and beavers. There are still a few farms, but they’re harder and harder to spot.
Suburbia is creeping into our rural areas, and its effects on the land are devastating. As the land gets more developed, water quality declines, and the likelihood of severe floods increases. Wildfires become more common and more expensive to fight. Built surfaces, fences, and pets (especially outdoor cats) decimate wild animal populations.
Nature is resilient. Given enough time, your woods will bounce back if you break the first four rules. But when you chunk up your land into house lots, that land will never again be woods. It has changed forever.
That’s why I consider this rule the most important of the six. Whatever else you do on your woodland, if you want to do right by it, do what you can to keep the land undivided and undeveloped.
Rule #6: Meet Your Ownership Goals
The previous five rules focused on making sure your land improves as a result of your actions. But you and your land are partners, so your relationship should enrich your life as well.
I don’t mean enrich in a financial sense, although there are ways to earn income from your land while respecting these six rules. I mean that whatever your reasons are for owning your property, you should be able to fulfill them. Owning woods shouldn’t be a punishment. You should be able to have fun. You should be able to have privacy. You should be able to earn income. These are all OK.
In fact, these reasons are essential. Owning woodland is expensive. Even if you do nothing with it, you’re still paying property taxes on it every year. You and your family should get something for that investment.
That’s why I’ve devoted the next part of this book, not to weighty topics like your land’s future, but to simply having fun on it. Because the more you and your family get out and enjoy your property, the more excited you’ll be to partner with your land for years to come.
More from: Backyard Woodland• Cutting Your Own Firewood
• The Dangers of Ticks in the Woods
Reprinted with permission from Backyard Woodland (2016), by Josh VanBrakle and published by Countrymn Press.